Facebook Pixel On-Camera vs Off-Camera Flash: Which Is Best?

On-Camera vs Off-Camera Flash: Which Is Best?

On-camera vs off-camera: Which type of flash should you use?

From on-camera convenience to off-camera creativity, learn how to choose the type of flash that will set your photography apart.

Is on-camera flash superior to off-camera flash? Well, it might be the easier option, but “easy” doesn’t always mean “best.” Yes, there are times when using an on-camera flash can yield decent results – but in my experience, off-camera flash often produces more flattering light.

In this article, I delve into the advantages and disadvantages of both on-camera vs off-camera flash. I explore when each option shines; that way, you can make informed decisions based on your specific needs.

Remember: Mastering the art of flash control is just as crucial as understanding and managing your camera’s exposure. Once you grasp the distinctions between on-camera and off-camera flash, you’ll witness a significant improvement in the quality of your photos!

What is on-camera flash?

woman weaving on a loom © Kevin Landwer-Johan

On-camera flash refers to using your flash when it’s mounted directly on your camera. Typically, you’ll attach the flash to the camera’s hot shoe or use a bracket to connect it to one side of the camera. In either case, it’s considered on-camera flash.

When you use on-camera flash, the light is usually directed straight from the camera to the subject. However, if you have a flash unit with a swivel head, you can adjust the direction of the light. This allows you to bounce the flash off the ceiling (indoors) or other reflective surfaces.

Mounting your flash on-camera makes it easier to control and manage the settings. Modern flash units sync seamlessly with cameras, allowing the two to communicate and calculate the ideal amount of light needed for a perfect exposure. This functionality eliminates many of the complexities associated with flash photography.

Keep in mind that on-camera flash does have some limitations when it comes to diffusion accessories. You can attach small softboxes and other types of modifiers to a camera-mounted flash, but they can’t be too large, as they may interfere with your camera’s operation.

What is off-camera flash?

portrait of a Thai woman using off camera flash

Off-camera flash is when you take your flash off your camera and use it separately. You can connect the flash either with a cable or through a wireless system to ensure it syncs perfectly with your camera.

Using flash off-camera gives you the freedom to position it wherever you want. This opens up a world of creative possibilities when it comes to lighting your subject. You’re not restricted to the fixed position of an on-camera flash.

Some camera systems have built-in wireless flash trigger systems, while others require an external trigger or sync cable to synchronize the flash with the camera’s shutter. The key is to make sure that the camera and flash work together seamlessly; otherwise, using your flash would be pointless.

The level of control you have over the flash’s functionality depends on both the flash itself and your camera. Generally, more advanced flash units offer a wider range of options for customization. Opting for a flash from the same brand as your camera often provides even greater control and flexibility.

The benefits and drawbacks of on-camera flash

woman at a beach using on camera flash © Kevin Landwer-Johan

When it comes to photography, on-camera flash offers some enticing benefits, but it also comes with its fair share of drawbacks. Let’s delve into the advantages and disadvantages of using on-camera flash to capture portraits, event photos, and more.

One of the biggest advantages of on-camera flash is its convenience, especially in tight situations. Imagine being in a crowded space, surrounded by people, with little room to maneuver. In such scenarios, having the flash mounted on your camera provides a level of flexibility. You can effortlessly move around, capturing the moment without worrying about people obstructing your path.

woman at a temple at night © Kevin Landwer-Johan

Additionally, having the flash securely attached to your camera makes a big difference when stability is crucial. Picture yourself on a small boat, crossing a swinging bridge, or navigating uncertain terrain. In these instances, it’s important that you have a free hand to maintain balance and steady yourself; you don’t want to be carrying around a loose flash or a light stand! By keeping the flash mounted on your camera, you can stabilize yourself and maintain control while still capturing stunning images.

However, it’s important to note that on-camera flash does have its downsides. The primary issue lies in the quality of light it produces. Direct light, and even bounced light, often fail to yield desirable results. When the flash is mounted on my camera, shadows often appear unnatural due to the angle of the illuminating light on my subject. Plus, the harsh, unflattering shadows detract from the overall aesthetic of the photograph.

Young woman at an event with on-camera flash © Kevin Landwer-Johan

Finally, the options for diffusing the flash are somewhat limited when it comes to on-camera setups. The size of diffusers must be small enough not to interfere with or obstruct the camera, which compromises their effectiveness. Larger diffusers typically generate softer, more even lighting, resulting in more pleasing results – yet achieving this level of diffusion becomes a challenge when working with the smaller diffusers required for on-camera flash.

On-camera flash pros

  • Easy to use
  • Can shoot hands-free
  • Not as cumbersome

On-camera flash cons

  • Direct light is less flattering
  • Limited diffusion options

The benefits and drawbacks of off-camera flash

Using off-camera flash may not be as straightforward as sticking your flash on top of your camera, but trust me, it’s worth the effort to learn how. When it comes to capturing a variety of subjects in different situations, positioning your flash away from your camera can produce remarkably pleasing results.

I often opt for off-camera flash to fill in the shadows created by ambient light. Here’s how I do it: First, I position myself and my subject exactly as I want them. Then, I strategically place my flash on the opposite side of the main light source. This technique works like magic, effectively softening harsh shadows and creating a more balanced tonal range in my composition.

Buddhist ceremony with men and boys using off camera flash
© Kevin Landwer-Johan

When it comes to portraits, off-camera flash opens up a world of creative possibilities. I can angle my flash from below, casting eerie shadows on my subject’s face, giving it that mysterious, horror movie vibe. Alternatively, I can position a flash behind my subject to create a captivating hair light. And let’s not forget about side lighting or using the flash to fill in shadows from a key light. Off-camera flash gives you the freedom to experiment and elevate your portrait game.

Now, let’s talk about flash modifiers. Some of the most effective ones happen to be quite large, and trying to use them with your flash mounted on the camera is impractical; they’re just too big! But with your flash off camera, you have access to dozens of modifiers that’ll help you control and shape the quality of light. Think umbrellas, softboxes, and an array of other light diffusers!

flash with a softbox © Kevin Landwer-Johan

Now, sometimes I like to go handheld with my flash, but it’s not always the most convenient option. That’s when I rely on extendable light stands or tabletop stands to keep my flash in place. And when I’m working with an assistant, I have them hold the off-camera flash for me. (Teamwork makes the dream work, right?)

I must admit, using off-camera flash requires a bit more attention and calculation compared to the simplicity of a camera-mounted flash. When your flash is not mounted to the hot shoe, communication between the flash and the camera may not be as precise. This can result in overexposed or underexposed photos when relying on automatic flash systems. In such situations, I take control of my flash output and manually adjust it to achieve the desired exposure.

Off-camera flash pros

  • More lighting style options
  • Flexible positioning
  • Compatible with large modifiers

Off-camera flash cons

  • More difficult to learn and use
  • Requires a stand, assistant, or a free hand

On-camera vs off-camera flash: verdict

woman making large bubbles © Kevin Landwer-Johan

As you’ve hopefully gathered from the article, neither on-camera flash nor off-camera flash reigns supreme at all times. They both have their uses, and it’s really all about figuring out what works for each situation and aligns with your preferred style.

On-camera flash is a breeze to manage and use, but let’s be real: the lighting it produces isn’t always the best. Plus, you don’t have much wiggle room when it comes to tinkering with modifiers to get that perfect shot.

As for off-camera flash: While it’s trickier to learn and master, the results can be amazing. Not only does it have the power to bathe your subjects in wonderfully flattering, diffused light, but you can also move it around to conjure up all sorts of breathtaking effects and beautiful lighting patterns.

If you’re new to the flash game, I urge you to be adventurous and try both options. Spend time evaluating how each type of flash transforms the scene (make sure you pay close attention to the direction and intensity of the shadows!). Try bounce techniques and experiment with different modifiers. Test the approaches out in various scenarios and with different subjects.

By doing these tests, you’ll become well-equipped to make an informed decision the next time you’re faced with a tricky situation!

Now over to you:

Do you prefer on-camera or off-camera flash? When do you think you’ll use one over the other? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

On-camera vs off-camera flash FAQ

What is the benefit of off-camera flash?

Off-camera flash can create especially flattering light, and it also allows for flexible positioning to achieve stunning effects.

Is on-camera flash good enough?

That depends on the scenario! On-camera flash is convenient, but it may not provide the most flattering light.

Do professional photographers use on-camera flash?

Yes, professional photographers do use on-camera flash when the situation calls for it, but they also explore off-camera flash for more creative and dynamic lighting options.

What is the disadvantage of off-camera flash?

The main disadvantage of off-camera flash is the learning curve and added complexity it brings compared to on-camera flash. Off-camera flash is also less convenient because you’ll need a way to position it.

Can you use on-camera and off-camera flash together?

Absolutely! On-camera and off-camera flash can look great together. You can get reliable fill light from the on-camera flash and added creative control with the off-camera flash.

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Kevin Landwer-Johan
Kevin Landwer-Johan

Kevin Landwer-Johan is a photographer, photography teacher, and author with over 30 years of experience that he loves to share with others.

Check out his website and his Buy Me a Coffee page.

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